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Uncommon Wagers: Simple Bets That Lead To Extraordinary Fiction

The Cardsharps by Caravaggio, oil on canvas, circa 1594
The Cardsharps by Caravaggio, oil on canvas, circa 1594

What inspires an author to begin spinning a particular tale? Some authors claim to be stirred by dreams, others by life events, and some by a simple small detail they noticed about something one day. Authors’ imaginations can be sparked by any number of things large and small. What you don’t generally hear is that an author decided to write a book based on the whim of another person. Well, today I have found some authors that wrote some of their most famous novels all because of a simple wager, a meaningless bet, they made with someone.

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss supposedly wrote his famous children’s book Green Eggs and Ham because of a $50 bet his friend Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, made with him claiming that he couldn’t write a book made up of fifty or fewer distinct words. Dr. Seuss ended up proving him wrong, writing Green Eggs and Ham using exactly 50 unique words. Unfortunately for Dr. Seuss, Cerf never did pay up. But I’d say the outstanding success of the book more than made up for that.

Terry Southern

Terry Southern wrote his novel Candy because of a bet he made that the worst possible sex novel could become a best-seller, which it in fact did.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky, a noted gambler, once used a bet to get himself out of steep gambling debts. In order to get out of some deep gambling debt Dostoyevsky made a deal that he would write a novel within a few months, which he would provide as payment. The bet stipulated that if Dostoyevsky didn’t finish the novel he would hand over the publishing rights and royalties of all the novels he’d ever written, quite a hefty sum. Well, not only did he finish the novel in time, but it turned into his famous novel The Gambler, one of the greatest books ever written about compulsive gambling. At least his wealth of experience didn’t go to waste.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien

Lewis and Tolkien made a wager that each of them would try writing in a new genre. According to Bruce L. Edwards in his book C.S. Lewis:

A simple flip of a coin determined that Lewis would try his hand at a space-travel story and Tolkien would try time-travel.

What resulted was C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Tolkien, however, wrote in a 1968 letter that his effort had “ran dry.” He never did finish his time-travel novel, and Lewis won the bet by a landslide.

Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton wrote one of his most famous novels, Eaters of the Dead, in response to a bet that he couldn’t write a version of the Beowulf saga that was relevant to the modern reader. Crichton presents his book as a lost manuscript written by an Islamic envoy kidnapped by the Vikings in 932.

Mary Shelley

I thought I would leave the best for last. I’m sure you are all familiar with the novel Frankenstein. It’s conception occurred when Mary traveled with Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont to Geneva one summer. The group was joined there by Lord Byron and his friend John William Polidori in May of 1816. The group amused themselves at night by sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa and telling German ghost stories. This prompted Byron to suggest that they each write their own ghost story. Extremely anxious about her difficulty in coming up with a story, Mary relates:

“Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”

One evening they began a discussion on the nature of the principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” Mary noted,” galvanism had given token of such things.” Later that night, unable to sleep, Mary’s imagination stirred to life a “waking dream”:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

And so began Mary Shelley’s foray into writing one of the greatest novels of all time, Frankenstein.

Sources: wikipedia, www.todayifoundout.com, io9.com

What do you think of these hastily made bets and the surprisingly sweet fruit they produced? Do you know of any other famous bets linked to literature? Sound off below…



Interested in learning more about C.S. Lewis? Make sure to read Amber’s blog post C.S. Lewis on Writing and Criticism.

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By on May 6th, 2014

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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